Pay-As-You-Go Solar Lightens Up Energy Costs In Off-Grid Rural Africa

Installment-paid solar energy for lighting and mobile phone chargers lowers costs and improves quality of life

By Rhonda J. Miller on November 24, 2013 6:35 PM EST

Pay-As-You-Go Solar Energy
Residents living off the grid in rural Africa are increasingly using pay-as-you-go solar energy to replace expensive and dangerous kerosene. (Photo: Azuri Technologies, Ltd. / Rhonda J. Miller)

For residents living off the grid in rural Africa, pay-as-you-go solar energy is gaining a foothold as an affordable a way to get power that's an alternative to expensive and dangerous kerosene.

Only one-in-six rural residents of sub-Saharan Africa have access to electricity. So kerosene has been the main source of lighting, costing an equivalent of $8 per kilowatt-hour for a resident of rural Kenya or Rwanda, for example, compared to utility costs in the U.S. and the UK averaging 10 to 15 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to Scientific American. Charging a mobile phone could cost a villager in Kenya more than 400 times what it would cost to charge a cell phone in the U.S.

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"The poorest people in the world are not just paying a bit more for their energy, they're paying a disproportionate amount," said Simon Bransfield-Garth, CEO of Azuri Technologies, a solar services firm based in Cambridge, England, according to Scientific American.

Azuri is one of several companies meeting a growing demand for pay-as-you-go solar energy for off-grid customers. Azuri sends a scratch-off card with a code to be sent back to the company via SMS message. Then the unlock code is entered into the solar kit. Azuri has reported more than 21,000 customers in 10 countries — Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Ghana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and South Sudan.

Another company gaining ground in installment solar is Angaza Design of San Francisco. The company's pay-as-you-go technology consists of embedded components within a solar home system regulated by a cloud-based energy management database, according to a company profile. Angaza's technology is tied directly into regional mobile money platforms, so customers can easily purchase energy credit using their cell phones. Once a customer payment is received, Angaza activates the unit via the cellular network for a proportional amount of energy output.

Angaza chief technology officer Bryan Silverthorn said the company has gotten feedback that the pay-as-you-go solar kits are giving off-grid Africans power that allows them to dramatically improve their quality of life, reported Scientific American.. Angaza anticipates having 10,000 customers within the next year.

Another solar pay-as-you-go company is M-KOPA, which uses a mobile network to receive payments, with plans starting at 50 cents per day, according to Scientific American..

The M-KOPA units are designed and manufactured by the U.S. solar lighting startup d.light Solar, according to an October 2013 review by Andy Volk for Wired magazine. Each M-KOPA solar device is set with a unique customer ID number that is used to add credit to the user's account.

"The beauty of the M-KOPA pricing model is that for consumers it resembles the prepaid electricity model that is becoming the norm in Kenya and other African countries," said Volk. "But in reality, your daily payments are part of your 'rent to own' agreement with M-KOPA, so after you buy 360 days' worth of electricity, you own your system outright and no longer have to make daily payments.

"Families in Africa looking to set up a simple and low-cost home lighting and phone charging system won't find a more innovative, portable and rugged system than the M-KOPA," Volk reported from Nairobi, Kenya, where he was reviewing the M-KOPA home solar system.

Based in Nairobi, M-KOPA,reported on its website that, "As of October 2013, we are actively providing affordable solar power to over 30,000 Kenyan households and adding 1,000 more every week."

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